New twist on the road to congestion charging

Charging drivers for using roads has long been advocated as a key tool for protecting the environment from rising traffic emissions and noise. Government has blown hot and cold but is now proposing a new way forward.

The government is considering introducing toll lanes on some of England’s busiest motorways to tackle congestion - or reserving lanes for cars carrying more than just the driver.1 These could take the place of motorway widening schemes.

The Department for Transport (DfT) is also pressing ahead with projects to demonstrate the electronic technology that could underpin a national scheme. These will involve up to 2,500 drivers, with companies leading the project expected to be chosen this summer.

These are the latest twists in the saga of attempts to introduce congestion charging. Charging for driving at the point of use has long been supported by environmentalists, transport academics and some free marketeers. Business has also given increasing backing, including the road haulage industry and former BA chief executive Sir Rod Eddington in the huge transport study he led for the Treasury in 2006 (ENDS Report 383, pp 34-35 ).

But to date London’s congestion charging scheme is the only significant working example in the UK.

For many, the chief rationale for charging has been to tackle road congestion rationally and effectively. But environmentalists have long seen road pricing as essential for halting the unending growth in traffic. That, in turn, would play a leading role in bringing down rising greenhouse gas emissions from transport as well as reducing noise and air pollution.

In the late 1990s, the government projected that several local city-wide congestion charging schemes would by now start making a significant contribution to reducing UK CO2 emissions. It has not happened.

Progress on such city-wide schemes has been very slow, with only two now in contention - Cambridge and Greater Manchester. Although both have put in bids for major government funding, it is far from certain that either will be implemented. Local councils abandoned plans for such a scheme for the West Midlands in March, largely because of a lack of support from the conurbation’s businesses and residents.

Since 1997 the case for a national congestion charging scheme, covering all vehicles and much of the road network, had gained ground in government. It would charge drivers a variable rate, based on how congested the roads around them were at the time. Implementing it would require a huge investment in technology capable of continuously monitoring every vehicle’s movements.

In 2004 the then Transport Secretary Alistair Darling published a study into national congestion charging. It concluded that such a scheme could become technologically feasible within 15 years and could massively reduce congestion. Mr Darling said he wanted to lead a national debate on the issue, arguing that the revenues raised should be used to cut other taxes on road users.

But instead of consensus, studies and ministerial speeches provoked massive opposition among drivers and some national newspapers. A hostile e-petition on the 10 Downing Street website collected more than a million signatures.

The government appeared to reverse before the wrath of the motorists. It had already scrapped plans to bring in road-user charging for heavy goods vehicles based on the mileage they travelled. It said that a national scheme covering all vehicles would supersede this lorry scheme. Then Alistair Darling moved on and the DfT went quiet on the concept. But traffic kept growing - by 1.3% a year between 2001 and 2006 - as did congestion.

Last November the DfT’s official response to the Eddington Transport Study seemed to postpone national congestion (ENDS Report 394, pp 40-41 ), calling it "a decision for the future".

Jason Torrance, campaigns director of the Campaign for Better Transport (formerly Transport 2000) said the uncertainty about city-wide charging schemes and the government’s cold feet on a national scheme meant there was no strategy for addressing rising road traffic and the damage it does to the environment and people. "The heat and the momentum has gone out of it," he told ENDS.

In a speech in March, Transport Secretary Ruth Kelly said she had listened to concerns about the fairness of such a scheme and its intrusion into personal privacy. "The reality is that we’re still some way from having all the answers to these questions," she said, and "the national road pricing debate has become sterile".

But it was what she said next, along with an accompanying DfT study on advanced motorway management, that gives some congestion charging enthusiasts fresh hope.2 Automatic tolling on individual motorway lanes may offer a new way forward.

Following a successful trial on a busy 18km stretch of the M62 east of Birmingham that began in 2006, the DfT says it wants to introduce peak-hour use of the hard shoulder on a substantial part of England’s network. This would instantly widen motorways.

The new DfT study proposes this as an alternative to motorway widening. But it also makes the case for hard shoulder running on congestion-prone parts of the motorway network where there are no widening plans. It suggests that 400km of motorway - including much of the M25, M1 and M6 - could be switched to hard-shoulder running at peak times with a 60mph speed limit.

This would cost more than £5 billion because the motorways would need lighting, new traffic signals, controls and monitoring systems. Variable speed limits keep traffic running smoothly in busy periods while traffic lights at junctions limit the flow of vehicles entering the motorway. Drivers also need signals to tell them when they can use the hard shoulder.

Even so, these changes are much cheaper than extra motorway lanes and cause less environmental damage. The study says CO2 emissions rise significantly with hard-shoulder use because more traffic uses the road and vehicles can drive faster on average. But the emissions increase is 50% higher on a widened motorway.

The DfT study also proposes reserving one motorway lane for ‘high occupancy vehicles’ (HOVs). These lanes would encourage car sharing and car pools. Drivers without passengers who want to use these lanes could be charged a toll. Such high occupancy or tolled lanes (HOT lanes) are found on US urban freeways.

Ruth Kelly said: "I’m keen to explore the scope for taking a similar approach here wherever we are adding new capacity…allowing motorists to enter a reserved lane if they are carrying passengers or willing to pay a toll gives them a real choice." In the halting journey towards congestion charging, HOT lanes could be "a nifty overtaking manoeuvre", she added. Schemes for specific motorway stretches would be drawn up over the next nine months.

But while an expansion of hard-shoulder running seems a sure bet, HOV and HOT lanes are less certain. The DfT study says there are serious safety and enforcement problems to be overcome in turning over the outside lane to HOVs in the UK. Cameras on gantries are not yet capable of seeing how many people are in a car. The study condemned a proposed HOV lane on the M1 between St Albans and Luton on these grounds; that has now been dropped.

Instead, it says, HOV lanes could be used on inside lanes at about a dozen motorway junctions, giving drivers with passengers priority over other traffic in leaving a congested motorway. It says more research is needed on tolling options.

The Commission for Integrated Transport, the government’s lead transport adviser and longtime advocate of congestion charging, hopes that HOT lanes offer a new way forward. They could get drivers used to congestion charging bit by bit - especially if cities outside London introduce urban congestion charging schemes. And it notes the government commitment to fund trials of charging technology, announced in the Budget (see pp 4-5 ).

Commission vice chair Lynn Sloman said: "Our view is that the extra capacity created by hard shoulder running should be used to introduce the charging option on motorways. It would also be a welcome alternative to motorway widening."

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